East Coast Swing For the Fences!

Americans are hard workers. We build railroads and lay highways. We have a 40-hour workweek, two weeks of vacation if we’re lucky and everybody moonlights. We force poor Aisha Tyler to work 14 jobs and smile through it. Americans do everything to the absolute maximum. In some ways, this is a great thing (e.g. The Moon Landing). In others, not so great (e.g. morbid obesity).

When it comes to the American Style, our work ethic still shines through. In fact… maybe a little too much. There is an unfortunate habit among American Style students and teachers to go a little too far. It’s never a bad thing to use and editing eye — take out the unnecessary and be clear about what we’re trying to communicate, what skill we’re trying to show. If the difficulty-level is raised and our bodies or minds are unable to rise to the occasion, we might end up looking sloppy or rushed. There’s a reason we use the word “Open” at the highest levels. It’s not “Advanced”. Do whatever you can do well, show your understanding and you will be rewarded.

In the ballroom dance world, the style I see this happening to most often is East Coast Swing. If you’ve never danced a day in your life, let me make this easy for you: “Yes”, “Kinda”, “NO”.  These are the answers to the questions I’m usually asked when first discussing east coast swing. “Is there a west coast swing? *hold for laughs*”, “Kinda like Lindy Hop?” “Don’t they also call that jive?” All important questions that the more jaded dancer will find so obvious to think and speak but not to dance. You see, a lot of people know a lot about east coast swing (‘swing’ from now on) but there is an unfortunate habit by many to walk out there and dance like they’re putting out a fire in their shoes. I always marvel at the difference between couples walking off the floor from a jive and the couples finishing swing and preparing for their bolero. They’ve both done a lot of the same things but the swing couples often seem so much more wiped out and they danced at about half the speed of the jivers. Why is that? Because American Style dancers are hard workers. And when they head towards the East Coast, they tend to work just too damn hard. So grab a towel, wipe off that sweat and let’s talk a little bit about how to streamline our swing so as to not burn out halfway through our program.

I feel I should firstly make something clear. Swing is hard, you guys. Like, really. Even great professionals can lose it on their swings because it requires so much of one thing: control. Control is the name of the game in swing. You’ve got speed, you’ve got syncopations, body action and bounce. Put that all together and you’ve got a recipe for disaster without a clear understanding of managing that myriad of factors. So let’s work our way up:

Starting at our feet we’ve already got troubles a brewin’. The feet make a huge difference in how your swing will be danced and as luck would have it, this is one of those places where a lot of things are “acceptable”. Heel up or down? Doesn’t matter! Ball or ball flat? It all works! Lots of teachers have differing opinions on this and even teachers’ manuals make allowances for different ways of doing the two basic swing actions: rocks and triples. They’ve got little charts and parentheses of all the allowable way of doing these two theoretically simple things. The sad part is: they’re right, all of those ways work. Personally, I’m okay with keeping all those concepts bouncing around in my head and then picking and choosing in the moment based on my music, partner and routine. But that’s not an efficient way of moving or practicing. So let’s figure out what’s concrete and reliable.

The most important thing for me in swing is to stay very forward on a turned out foot so as to stay very agile. I can do a lot more for my speed and balance by staying much, much more forward than if I’m rolling through to a flat foot. Heels are personae non grata in swing. Therefore, on rocks I prefer to keep my heel up. This is not done in the same way as Hustle or other dances where I’m trying to create a hip lift action — that just doesn’t really fit all that well to me. I am merely trying to propel myself forward on to my standing leg so I can track through and continue. Because I won’t be using quite the same settling action with my legs, I want to keep my rock as simple and continuous as possible in order to also contribute to a continuous and even bounce action through my body.

This is also a large matter of contention between swing and jive in that jive uses a strong heel-lowering action on the rocks in order to create a strong twist throughout the body. In swing, we don’t use as strong of a rotation because we’ve already created a great deal of body action with our triples and we don’t need as much compression and leverage to contend with the speed. Lastly, because we have so much extra time compared to jive, we can’t physically rotate any further around our spines and so the energy will plainly die if we lower our heels and over-twist our rocks. Additionally, the lack of a flick/snap/rebounding leg action means we don’t have to set up camp on one leg while the other leaves the floor. Repeat after me: Swing is not jive. If you want to dance latin, dance latin.

Aside: we’re literally only two steps in. See what I mean when I said it was difficult?

I’m less particular about triple steps. I find they are somewhat more up to one’s preference, ability and choreography. Even with the timing, it’s hard to find a consensus. Because there is always the quandary of the breakdown. Swing timing of 2/3 – 1/3 – 1 or straight timing of 3/4 – 1/4 – 1? The answer depends on the song, more or less. A swingier song requires swingier timing. My response is to streamline it and sing. “Triiii – ple – stepppppp” is really all you need to know. Like any lyrics, you can adjust them to the music backing them. So long as it’s broken down length-wise as “medium – short – lonnnnng”, your triples will work fine. Then once that’s mastered, you’ll gain the freedom to syncopate.

The thing I can say about good triple step footwork is that it includes a ball-change (ball, ball flat sequence) of some kind. So long as they are not the shuffle-shuffle-shuffle triples most of us started off with, a triple step with a ball change will foot nearly any bill. The two main styles of “ball flat, ball, ball flat” and “ball, ball flat, ball flat” both have their particular pros and cons. The former helps contend with speed a little better. The latter creates a greater swing of the hips and is more grounded. Personally, I use them pretty much interchangeably depending on what it is I’m doing. I find the ball flat method works well when I’m tripling around the floor and trying to create space and the ball method works best on compact triples in place.

Given the modularity of triple steps, our goal then becomes to keep our body actions consistent across every basic variation we do. There are two constant actions at play in swing that we try to manage: bounce and swing.

Bounce is an on-going an internal tic that should be present independent of foot actions. If you just stand there, compression through your lower body in timing with the music produces an even bounce. This isn’t the song explosive bounce of samba but an ever-present internal action syncing your body with the music. The bounce to me is a matter of connecting your internal metronomes (e.g. your heartbeat) with the external metronome that is the music. There is an enormous disparity when a person never finds a way to connect themselves to the music more so than what their ears will allow. Musical dancing comes from inside and is not a matter of chasing the beat but of becoming in sync with it. Bounce is the body’s mechanism to connect with the rhythms at hand so the feet and center can cope with the syncopations.

The swing is a little different. For a long time, I didn’t really understand the swing of the hips in swing dancing. Was it like Cuban motion? Was it like sway? I could never grasp how swing action worked in swing nor could anyone give me an answer I really understood. Then it just sort of happened. I was dancing in another teacher’s swing class to fill out the ranks and every time another teacher rotated to partner me, she and I would dance all out. We were still doing as we were asked and weren’t showing off but just dancing the combination as if there was no tomorrow. And as we ran through the sequence over and over again I began to feel that hip swing I’d heard so much about and began to realize how it worked.

Swing action is in some ways the opposite of Cuban motion. Cuban motion is a lot of contraction and squeezing through the body to create rotation, lift and compression — most of which we want to avoid in swing. Swing action comes primarily to me from relaxing and allowing my lower body to swing laterally. Much of the energy is generated over the first two steps of the triple step. As we dance our 1a aka our “trip-le”, we begin to allow our ribcage to prepare and precede our feet, moving in the ultimate direction of the triple step and in turn creating a stretch between the bottom of the ribcage and the top of the pelvis. Meanwhile, I do everything in my power to keep my hips from slipping out from underneath me. After putting our body into suspension over our feet with either ball-change action we then release all of that energy onto the landing leg of the triple step, finally allowing our until-then compressed hips to swing and catch up with the ribcage that went ahead. Once arriving on 2 or “step”, we don’t want our hips rotating or twisting in a figure-eight manner, but merely all of our body and all of our energy to head in the same direction seeing as previously mentioned we don’t have the time to separate the parts of our body and still recover before the next action.

And what dictates all of this work and creates the need that it be do clear and deliberate is the music. The music for swing dances is pretty unmistakable. I’ve seen people mistake boleros for rumbas, rumbas for cha chas, cha chas for mambos. It’s not great but it’s by and large permissible due to the interrelation of all of those styles and their Cuban roots. Swing is distinctive. Swing is its own little island in the middle of your rhythm program where the tone shifts so abruptly that your ears can’t help but demand your eyes see something very different. Mainly, they want to see a correlation to the twos.

Those even swing beats are so heavily accented that it becomes almost a burden to the dancer to hit them with full force. In most Latin styles there are so many layers of sound that we are licensed to syncopate and alter the timing as needed in order to best express the particular rhythms. As swing choreography advances, we oftentimes lose sight of those definitive accents and the need to be reminded where our musical priorities exist. For any action we must be sure to give those even beats our attention lest the musicality of the style be forfeited. As one dances basic six-count actions, the conclusions of the triple-steps should be emphasized actionally in order to create a musical effect. It doesn’t hurt matters that the final step if the triple and that full beat gives us the most time to dance our actions to the fullest.

A good place to observe this is in any type of basic figure including turn for the followers — be it inside, outside or tuck — where the placement of the turn can determine the emphasized beat. If the turn is broken up over the course of the triple, there will be no direct correlation between the music and the action. However, if the entirety if the turn is taken on the final step of the triple and the preceding steps are merely a setup, the movement and music will be in sync. For choreography less particular to swing — such as walks, kicks or swivels — the musical need still exists. One would need to utilize that internal bounce to a greater degree to demonstrate a conscious acknowledgment that the music still requires their interpretation.

With a greater understand of the style and where to focus our energies, hopefully swing will maintain its reputation as the wild child of rhythm but the kind of wild child who’s responsible enough to have a paper route or babysit your kids. Because swing is a great style… It’s just a little misunderstood. If you take the time to get to know it you’ll come to realize that not only is swing a very simple dance to understand but also one of the styles that makes American style great.

Merengue: Marching to The Beat of Your Own Tambora

Oh, the simple things in life! Jeans and t-shirts. A deck of cards. Toast.

Sometimes we forget to appreciate the simple things in this go-go-go world of ours. As such, when you take the time to simplify, it’s very refreshing. I know this is absolutely true when it comes to dancing. Your basics are the only things that will be able to set you above other dancers. Many very strong competitive couples fail on the basis that while they may have a lot of flash and skills to demonstrate, they lack the clarity of strong, well-practiced basics. This is true of all styles. Couples like Arunas Bizokas and Katusha Demidova, Tony Dovolani and Elena Grinenko and Tomas Mielnicki and JT Thomas built careers and became champions on the basis of their basics. I love complexity to death but if it’s not supporting your basics in some way, it’s not worth your time. Look at any top-tier professional’s choreography: Believe it or not, it’s usually a manipulated basic sequence punctuated by lines/highlights and padded with elements that embody the style they’re dancing. Ta da!

“But basics are boring!” “Basics are hard!” “I’m beyond basics!” Wrong. Right. Wrong! Students by and large have complicated relationships with their basics for a myriad of reasons. I think this stems in large part from most students not knowing how to practice on their own. Many people only practice choreography and the priority shifts to being able to execute someone’s larger idea and interpretation of a style than the actual style itself. Choreography probably takes more brain power to memorize but you’re doing a body a disservice by not allowing it to absorb and practice the core principles. I always tell my students to begin by practicing elements — start with simple, singular movements like walks, rocking or initiation. Once your elements are refined, apply them to the basic figures they inhabit. Upon refreshing your basics, your choreography will really start to sing. Now repeat. Every day. Until you die.

The dance that epitomizes this idea of the neglected basic is unfortunately merengue.

I am of two minds when it comes to merengue. The first is from my first experience with it while in the BDTC. The Rhythm II quarter had just begun and I was feeling stronger and more competent after a rough Rhythm I quarter. The thing about rhythm and most Latin dancing is that it takes time to sink into your body and for your body to respond by creating actions through your hips and ribcage. I know now how dumb it was of me to expect to be excellent but I did and I wasn’t so my rhythm relationship was strained. So along comes merengue — the most paired-down, simple dance of the bunch. I did that same shimmying tip toe everyone does when they first dance merengue. It wasn’t pretty, but it was kinda fun (’cause Melissa Saphir can make anything fun). Learning the syllabus was tricky because what’s actually a great thing about merengue — you can do anything! But without a set guideline of a repeatable pattern, the merengue figures just got more and more jumbled. Chassés, side rocks, fifth-positions… It was all marching to me.

Cut to: not a long while later, I was working at my first studio in Oakland. Three times a week we would have parties and would dance all different styles with our students. The beauty of merengue is quickly found when one must grab a stranger with unknown dance experience and lead them smoothly and impressively for the next two-ish minutes. Then the simple marching dance is revealed for what it is: a playground of plentiful actions and is actually a ton of fun. Everything I liked about other styles I incorporated along with tricks and exciting things because it was so simple. A stripped down style shows one how dances are made interesting, whether socially or choreographically. Variety in timings, positions and actions make dancing fun — though this is only done when you understand how to dance the style itself.

When you combine these two ideas — the structure and technique of a dance teacher and the raucous-yet-pragmatic partygoer — you find the beauty of merengue. Simple and straight-forward while still spontaneous, merengue really beats the band.

It doesn’t take much to enhance merengue. The trick is mainly not to waste energy and (you guessed it!) simplify.

Due to the speed and incremental direction changes, merengue action is different from normal Cuban motion. Using a stronger-than-normal ribcage action as well as a very direct up and down piston-like action through the hips to decrease lateral pull from side to side. The body shouldn’t break up  like in other dances — it must move with a precise conveyance of energy from the ball of the foot connecting with the floor to the shoulder’s response to a contracting lat muscle.

Additionally, probably the most upsetting part of merengue as it’s danced socially is that Dramamine-requiring metronomic rocking. Our goal in all styles should be to stay as tall and vertical as we can manage unless deliberately shaping one way or an other. This is the not only to create an attractive body shape, allowing our hips to move freely and clearly but it also allows us to interpret timing changes. If I want to change the timing either faster or slower, I’ll need to either rise or lower to communicate that. Dancing with a long, clear spine will transform any figure into a malleable piece of choreography.

Lastly, the most important factor in dancing merengue to me is making it flow. You have two choices: connect or contrast. I’m always conscious as a leader of what I’m doing and more importantly, what I’m doing next. I want to make sure that what I do makes sense on the whole from an aesthetic and balance standpoint. I’d need to link my actions together in coherent, deliberate ways. The easiest way to do this is to take my time. Taking a couple extra beats to figure out what’s next benefits everyone. Meanwhile, my partner would not like it if I made her turn left a dozen times in a row. It would not look good to the outside if I just did similar wrapping actions over and over — it would be boring. This is why I also must do contrasting actions. Left turns followed by right turns, wraps followed by hammerlocks, tunnels followed by ducks. The more creative you get with your dancing the more interesting it will be for both partners and the more mileage you’ll get out of your punctuating basics.

The simple dances may seem fun and easy but they necessitate clean and precise movements. So take your jitterbugs, your merengues, your four-step hustles and ask yourself, “am I doing too much? Or not enough?” The answers may surprise you.

Hustle (n Flow)

Thanks to my affiliation with the Richmond Village Beacon and the Richmond District Neighborhood Center, I’ve had the privilege of teaching a wonderful class of a large group of enthusiastic students across a diverse array of styles. In the beginning, we would switch styles each week and have a little crash course from beginning to intermediate in the space of two hours. Oftentimes I would be asked why we would change styles so frequently and the answer was this: if you go to a ballroom party, there are many styles to dance. Most ballrooms include at least 10 styles at their parties — usually more. Smooth, Rhythm and Social/Nightclub are all fair game and you’re expected to get out there and dance each and every one. I always suggest leaders know a handful of basics and at least one fancier, more intricate “power move” to keep things interesting. Followers have a much more difficult time as they don’t know what leaders might throw at them. The best course of action for a follower is to try and experience as many different techniques and elements as she can in order to follow even the most advanced leader — provided he was leading correctly. It’s a luxury to only have to work on and practice one or two styles — and that luxury really puts enormous limitations on social dancers who are too precious about the few styles they do. My classes are intended to train that versatility into dancers; to change direction on a dime and fall in love with whatever style you’re asked to dance. With all that in mind, I’ve decided to dedicate a little time each week to briefly* explain what’s great and worth remembering about these styles to help organize your mind around the tasks at hand with the second-hand knowledge I’ve accrued and my own experiences.

*As if I’ve ever been brief in my life…


Hustle

When I first think of hustle, I think of sitting outside of MacArthur BART station in Emeryville, on my way to the Allegro Ballroom. I was a BDTC student enrolled in the Nightclub quarter and today we were starting to learn hustle. It occurred to me that of the years I’d spent researching and studying ballroom dances, of the 17 BDTC styles I couldn’t quite paint a picture in my mind of what hustle looked like. Was it fast? Slow? Smooth? Sharp? I’d maybe seen hustle once or twice on television but it hadn’t made much or any of an impression on me. It was a strange feeling to walk into class as a blank slate for once — terrified that I’d be spending the next two hours line dancing.

Julie Lowe began taking us through some exercises and the syllabus figures. My first thought had nothing to do with hustle itself. A month into dancing and things were getting a lot easier! I was picking this up so much faster and more comfortably. My mind could interpret Julie’s direction and relay it to my body. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a start! By the end of the night, there was a definite breakthrough. Dancing the alternating underarm turns with a friendly Southern gal named Allie who was a much better dancer than me, Julie stopped the class to point us out. We had gotten it! &1: we broke back! 23: we slickly changed places, tracing our hands across our partner’s back to regain the connection quickly and efficiently. Never before had Julie allowed me to demonstrate anything! My goal until then had truly been to go completely unnoticed and now to have people watching our success felt so intoxicating! It was here that I began my love affair with hustle that continues to this day.

Since then, I’ve come to know hustle in numerous forms and more advanced levels. Most commonly, hustle is seen with three timing options (all NDCA approved!). I started learning hustle as syncopated hustle: &123 timing with a syncopated break on &1. Later on, I learned four step hustle with the even timing of 1234, removing the syncopation and typically starting with a forward break to build the compression needed for slower breaks. The last and probably least common in this area is 12&3 timing. It sort of bridges the gap between syncopated and four step, starting with a forward four step break and leading into a syncopated back break. It’s a useful timing to know for social dancing but I honestly get more use from the other two. It’s main purpose in my hustle is to bridge the gap from syncopated to four step as needed.

The technique of hustle is fairly simple — as with most social dances, the tricky part is calibrating your hustle to your song and variant. What’s most often forgotten is that hustle comes out of latin social dances (mambo, specifically). A big pet peeve of mine is seeing hustle danced more like a swing dance than a latin dance which leads to a more clunky, disjointed style. In order to dance hustle to its fullest potential, we must include the latin separation at the waist that we’d use in any more traditionally latin dance. This is to let the moving leg swing freely out from underneath the body rather than moving as one entire piece, incorrectly pulling the upper body with the moving foot. The pelvis must move freely to not disturb the connection while also being quite attractive and rhythmical.

Additionally, the other major factor in the creation of hustle was ballet. The last remaining partner dancers in New York it seemed were the latin salsa/mambo community. Also alive and kicking in NYC were ballet and modern dance communities such as the American Ballet Theater, New York City Ballet, Alvin Ailey and Martha Graham companies. As disco music began to gain a foothold in the social dance scene, the dancers of New York were unsure of what to do to this new sound. The result combined latin breaks and the forward poise and turning capacity of ballet dancers in an entirely new partner dance. After years of solo dancing, this new ‘touch’ dance where partners regained contact caught fire and became hustle. Although things may have changed over the following 40-odd years with the influences of contemporary ballroom dancing, international latin, DiscoFox, west coast swing and other styles, it’s very helpful to keep these two core factors in mind.

While salsa has remained a staple, many of us don’t have any concept of how ballet might affect this style. The points worth remembering are the turnout in your feet, extreme forward poise onto the balls of the feet and the long, vertical style of turns. Unlike other styles, your weight pretty much never shifts anywhere near your heels and it is a cardinal sin to drop your heel on back rocks. As for turns, you will find that they are almost always pivots rather than walk-turn or spiraling actions that are commonly seen in other dances. As far as hip action, we try to avoid breaking our body laterally in a figure-eight type action as we would in more common Cuban dances. Instead, the straightened knee and risen heel creates a strong hip lift action that will result in a longer body line and strong compression in the lat muscles. Additionally, although it may seem a little strange, there isn’t another dance that has the same combination of freedom and elegance as hustle. You must move so fluidly and gracefully across the slot while constantly changing positions and rocking that you really need a balletic stretch to your body and core. Forget about speed and just try to make yourself look long and graceful and your hustle will improve tenfold.

Hopefully, some of these tips will help you love hustle like I know I do. Practice and enjoy!